FORT WORTH, TX — While 17 races that spans almost seven months is a long enough season, being just two races into it could make things too early to start to look ahead at a championship. However, with how the opening two races have looked, I think there’s a lot to be said after the events at St. Pete and Texas. In fact, the championship could already be shaping up.
The last three winners of the opening race of the year went on to win the title that fall. That’s great news for Scott McLaughlin. He won in St. Pete. Last year, Alex Palou won the first race of his sophomore season and would take home the Astor Cup trophy with him leaving Long Beach. This year, a sophomore in McLaughlin is hoping to do the same.
He was runner-up in Texas to prove that he’s the real deal. He led 186 of 248 laps from his second starting spot and nearly became just the eighth driver to win the first two Indy Car races to a season. 6 of the other 7 won the title that year too. The 7th? He was second.
I think it’s safe to say, barring an unexpected meltdown McLaughlin is going to be in the top five in the final standings.
Same for his teammate Josef Newgarden. He narrowly beat McLaughlin and went from 14th to 4th in points. For Newgarden, he’s finished in the top five of the final standings for six straight years, five of which in the top four. Do you really think he’s going to slow down now?
Will Power is off to one of his best starts since his championship winning one in 2014. That’s the last time he started a season off with a pair of top fives in the first two races. The only other two times that he’s done so?
2010, 2011. He was second in both.
Last year was Power’s first season he didn’t have a top five points finish in the last 13 years. He won the 2014 championship. Was runner-up in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2016. He was third twice (2015 and 2018) and fourth once in 2013. He’s been fifth in 3 of the last 4 seasons (2017, 2019, 2020). He’s sitting second in points right now.
Last year, it took Team Penske 9 races to finally break the gates down to victory lane. The thing is, out of those 9 races, they finished runner-up in 5 of them including the first four races to the season. They’ve since found their rhythm including 2-for-2 in 2022.
The top team to beat them right now is Chip Ganassi Racing. They were the top non Penske team in St. Pete (Alex Palou in 2nd) and Texas (Marcus Ericsson in 3rd). In fact, Ganassi put all four cars in the top seven in Texas. The only thing was, Penske took the other three spots in the top seven and bested all but one Ganassi car in the process.
Still, Ganassi has 3 cars in the top six in points giving a Penske-Ganassi sweep of the top six spots in the standings right now. These two teams have combined to win nine straight Indy Car titles and 13 of the last 14 in general.
Palou won the title a year ago and has been second and seventh to start his title defense season off with. He’s third in points (-30) after two races. Scott Dixon has been eighth and fifth respectively this year and is sixth (-42) in the standings. He has a top four finish in 15 of the last 16 years in points.
Then you have Marcus Ericsson who had a top five car in St. Pete before being penalized on pit road. He’d still rebound to finish ninth. In Texas, he was third. He said that they had spent a lot of time this offseason in trying to improve on their oval success in order to have a legitimate shot at a title this season. It seems like that hardwork has paid off. He’s fifth in points (-39) and has improved each year in the final standings. He went from 17th to 12th to 6th.
He had three top 10’s in his rookie season of 2019. He’d have nine in 2020 and 12 in 2021.
So, in saying that, won’t you think that it’s going to be hard to break into that Penske-Ganassi party up front?
Andretti Autosport would normally be next and so far they are. But, can they get out of their own way? Colton Herta is seventh (-47) but they’ve had self inflicted pit road problems in both races.
From not getting his car filled on his first stop of the season in St. Pete to having a slow stop on his final stop in Texas, it’s hampered him. He’s finished fourth and 12th respectively but could easily have been on the podium in each.
His goals of being a champion rest on turning top fives into podiums. So far, he’s 0-for-2 in 2022.
He had 10 top fives in his first 32 starts to his career. The problem was, he only had four podiums out of those 10.
Last season, Herta had seven top fives in his No. 26 Honda in 16 races run. Out of those seven, five of which were on the podium giving him more podiums in 16 races last season than in 32 starts prior.
Herta was seventh, third and fifth respectively in points in his first three years of his career.
He’s the top one who can infiltrate the Penske-Ganassi party up front.
For Alexander Rossi, he just has bad luck. From a bad pit road call in St. Pete to bad luck in Texas, he sits marred deep down in the standings right now in 27th. There’s been 29 drivers to score points. His finishes this year? 20th and 27th respectively.
He hasn’t won a race since Road America in 2019. He led 54 of 55 laps that day. In fact, that was the 10th race of that season. At that point, he had led in 7 of the 10 races to account for 182 laps led.
But, over the last 39 races during this winless streak, he’s led a total of 95 laps. He led 83 laps in 2020, two last year and 10 in St. Pete. That’s it.
Also during this 39 race drought, he has finished 17th or worse in 7 of his last 19 starts. He had 6 finishes of 17th or worse in his previous 47 races.
The prime of his INDYCAR career is being wasted and he’s not anywhere near to where he expected to be in his career path in terms of success yet.
The Andretti Autosport driver seemed to be on a quick path to a championship once he won his second career NTT IndyCar Series race in Watkins Glen during that 2017 season. From the Toronto race that season through the one at Road America in 2019, Rossi had six wins, 16 podiums and 22 top five finishes in a span of 33 races. But, over the last 39 races, he’s yet to win, has just 8 podiums and only 11 top fives.
He was second in the championship in 2018 and third in 2019. But, this dip started during the middle of that ’19 season which is why he didn’t hoist the Astor Cup championship trophy that season and why he’s hasn’t yet overall. He was 10th in the final standings last year.
Rookie Devlin DeFrancesco got into two incidents in Texas and finished 24th. He sits 28th in points. Romain Grosjean, like Rossi, had a mechanical failure and was 26th. That’s 3 Andretti cars in the bottom four of the finishing order in Texas.
Do you trust they can turn it around?
Since the start of the 2019 season, Penske has won 21 times. Ganassi is behind them at 13. Andretti is still third, but they have just six trips to victory lane in that span. Ganassi has more than doubled Andretti which is a large gap now between second and third.
Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing is fourth with three victories, so half of Andretti’s total which honestly may have Andretti in third all by themselves. But, if you go in the Aeroscreen era (2020-present) Andretti has four wins with Arrow McLaren SP with two. Penske has 12 and Ganassi 11.
Where’s the gap from Penske and Ganassi to Andretti? Well, constantly chasing their cars is for starters. Then, when they have contending cars, bad luck typically strikes more times than not. That’s the difference.
Still, combine Andretti with Penske and Ganassi and you get every Indy Car championship from these three organizations since 2003. That’s why it’s going to be hard to break into this “Big 3.”
Arrow McLaren SP would be the top one but they’ve struggled to start 2022. Felix Rosenqvist won the pole in Texas but had a slow stop on his second stint and then had a mechanical failure. He’d finish 21st. He was 17th in St. Pete.
Pato O’Ward was 12th in St. Pete and he too had a slow stop on the same sequence as Rosenqvist did and would finish 15th at Texas. He’s been in the top four in points in each of the last two years but with the uncertainty surrounding his future at AMSP, this hole (-63) may be insurmountable to climb out of already.
Rosenqvist’s future isn’t certain either, so the quicker they can get that cloud out from over them, the quicker these results may turn back the other way.
Rinus VeeKay may be the top one though. He was sixth in St. Pete and 10th in Texas with a fast car in each. He had six top 10’s in the first seven races last season before he suffered his injury. That’s when his stats declined. Now that he’s healthy again, he looks the part.
Also you have to watch out for Graham Rahal. He was 7th in St. Pete and was passing cars in Texas before getting caught up in a crash not of his doing. Rahal has seven straight top 10 points finishes and is a solid one to get an eighth.
Their problem has been qualifying. This has been the topic of concern for Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing over the last few years. If they could qualify better, then watch out. It seems like they’re always coming from outside the top 10 on race day but by time the checkered flag falls, they’re well within it. Imagine if they could actually start closer to the front.
Well, they still don’t have it fixed yet.
In St. Pete, they qualified 11-15-23. Here in Texas, it was 24-25-27. They took three of the last four starting spots.
Last year, Takuma Sato qualified better than 15th just twice all season. He was 0-for-16 for top 10 starts. In just his second race with Dale Coyne Racing/Rick Ware Racing, he’s already in the top five as he’d start third in Texas.
Rahal started outside the top 10 in 10 of the 16 races himself.
What can they do to close this gap? That’s the difference in how far up Rahal can climb in the standings.
Still, that’s nine drivers between McLaughlin, Newgarden, Power, Dixon, Palou, Ericsson, Herta, Rahal and VeeKay.
You just need to be in the top 10 nearly every race while scoring as many top fives as you can. But most of those top fives need to be in the podiums too. That’s the difference.
Out of the last six championships, five of them had podiums in 50% or more of the starts on the season. The lowest is 41% by Josef Newgarden in 2019. With only 17 races on the docket, the magic number is eight podiums at the very minimum for 2022.
Then, with the competition being so tough to top these guys, it makes the field even tougher to win in.
That’s why St. Pete and Texas were telling so far.